The man is tall. Even taller than the ones before. He comes in a jeep, with four others. I watch them through our door. Father shows them to their ger. He tells us they are hungry. I help mother light the stove. There is mutton stew, left over from our meal. And fish from the lake. There is always fish from the lake. Father is sent out again. They might not all eat the mutton. Mother has learned that. Father returns, four fingers on his right hand, one on his left. I help mother with the food. Later, father and I carry the plates in, and I look. Three men and two women. They look tired, like father when he returns from a long journey. Four of them are talking, but the tall one is quiet. They all smile and say thank you. I understand thank you.
The next days, I watch. Four of them do what visitors usually do. They put their feet into the lake, then pull faces and make funny noises. They borrow our horses and ride to the dead volcano. They walk in big circles. The tall man stays by himself. Inside their ger, sometimes, or outside, on the grass, staring at the lake. I see him watching me as I catch fish from the shore. Once, he comes to the rocks. I carry on fishing. He moves forward, to the edge. I stop and look at him. His hair is dark, like mine, but his skin is pale and angry from the sun. His eyes look like the lake. Blue or grey, I can’t decide. He looks at me and I smile. I don’t know why, but I feel sad. I hold out my line to him. He looks at it, and at me, as though he doesn’t know what to do. I feel nervous, like I’ve done something wrong, but I keep my arm out. He moves towards me, looking down as he steps from rock to rock. When he reaches me he hesitates again, then takes the line. He looks at it closely, like father does when he’s fixing the motorbike. Then he takes a breadcrumb from the bowl at my feet. He attaches it to the hook, and uncoils some of the line from the wood. He looks at me again, and I nod. He takes the wood in his left hand, the line in his right, reaches back his long arm and, like he’s using all his strength, hurls the hook towards the centre of the lake. It lands in front of us, among the shallow rocks. I stare at it, and I have a bad feeling. Then he laughs. I am surprised, and I laugh too, as I realise he’s not ashamed. I take the line from him and pull it in. Then I throw the line out myself, slowly, so he can see. He watches silently. I do it three times, then I can see he wants to try again. It’s a bit better. We keep going, like this. I throw, then him. He starts to get good. Almost as far as me. But I’ve pulled two fish out, and he hasn’t any. The sun is dropping and I worry that mother will call me in. I really want him to catch a fish. I point, again, to the right spot, where I know they like to swim. He throws, and this time it’s perfect. The hook dips once, then twice. The line goes straight. He realises, and looks at me. His eyes are wide. For a moment I think of my brother. I grab the line and together we pull it in. I have to show him not to go too fast. I feel nervous like when I was little, pulling my own first fish in. Finally it jumps out of the water. I get it in my hands, hold it against the rock and hit it on the head with my stone. Then I help him take the hook out, and I throw the fish into the bucket. He stands over it, smiling. That night, I hop around the stove while mother finishes cooking. When I take the food in, I almost trip from going too fast. I set the plate down in front of him, I point at the fish, I point at him, and I smile. The others laugh, but he just smiles back. They all say thank you, as usual. But when he says it, it’s different.
Every day, we fish together. Father goes away again so I have extra work to do, but I finish it as fast as I can. Then I go down to the rocks. Sometimes he is there, sitting. Other times, he sees me from the ger. He is good now, and we catch a lot of fish. Even if I take them to the other gers nearby, it’s more than we can eat. But I don’t tell him that.
One day, I hear the jeep again. I hide in our ger. I’ve been trying not to think about when this will happen. Mother tells me to go outside to say goodbye. I shout at her: no! I start to cry. Mother gets mad. I have to go out there, she says. She dries my eyes and I walk outside, blinking into the sunlight. They are stood by the jeep. There are four of them. I look hard, to make sure. One has her hand out towards me. I take the bag of sweets from her and I think I say thank you, but I don’t know. They get into the jeep and my mother and I stand, waving. Then the door of their ger opens and the man walks out. He, too, is waving. The jeep drives away, following the tyre tracks, and only when I see it disappear over the hillside do I allow myself to look at him, and to believe that he’s staying. From behind his back he pulls something and holds it out. I hesitate. Why would he give me a present, if he is not leaving? Mother waves me forward. It is a book, like the ones I had when I went to the school. There is a calculator too. I open the pages of the book, and I don’t really understand, but I look at him and he smiles, and I feel that he will help me.
We have a routine. In the morning he helps me with my chores. Then, in the afternoon, I go through the book, page by page. I learn, and I do the exercises. I learn about algebra, probability and Pythagoras, and I calculate the area inside our ger. I show mother and she likes it. Afterwards, we go fishing. I even learn to calculate the angle to throw the line at, to reach the right spot in the lake. But I know that already, of course.
More visitors arrive, and stay in the ger with him. He is different while they are here. Quieter. He seems frightened, inside, like the horses if we take them too close to the crater. They come with a guide, a woman who speaks English like him. One evening, he comes to our ger with her. I am sent outside. The next day, the visitors leave, and straight afterwards, mother brings him into the ger. He has his big bag. I stand with the sweeping brush and stare at them. He’s going to stay with us, mother says, in our ger. He looks at me, as if to ask if that’s okay with me. I don’t know why, maybe because mother is staring at me, but I shrug, and carry on sweeping. I half-watch as mother shows him to the spare bed. I feel hot, and I’m not concentrating on the sweeping. I look at him, unpacking his bag, his face even paler than usual. He looks at me, and I drop the brush and go over to show him how to dress the bed. He smiles and says thank you. Nobody has slept in this bed since my brother. I would tell him that, if I could.
Now we are a family. Mother, father, me and him. Father is away a lot, sometimes for many days, and he helps with everything. Me with my chores, and mother with her work. I teach him a lot. How to take care of the horses. How to clean and gut the fish. How to light the stove. How to buy and exchange things with the neighbours. How to wash clothes in the lake. How to milk the mares, and how to ferment the milk into airag. How to drink the airag. How to ride the horses, fast. And how to speak our language. A few words. I learn not to giggle when he says them. And he teaches me. Maths, at first, and I finish the books he gave me. He rides with father into the town, on the back of the motorbike, and when they return he has more books. I learn about geography, all the countries, cities, rivers and mountains. I learn why it rains. I learn about history. About wars, and what can cause them. I learn some English, and now we can try to talk to each other.
We learn together, we laugh together and we cry together, when one of the horses gets ill and we have to kill her. It’s the only time I’ve seen a man cry, apart from when my brother died.
At first I try not to think about the end of summer, when we will move to different land. I try not to notice the days getting shorter. I don’t know if he will come with us. Then he goes with father again, and returns with a long, leather coat, the longest I’ve ever seen. When he puts it on and displays it to us I giggle at first, then I stop and stare. With the coat, his hair and beard now long, and his face much darker, he almost looks like one of us, and I know that he’s staying.
It feels now, looking back, like I had to do something. I was trapped by routine. Wake up, go to work, come home, go to bed. For what? I couldn’t answer. I met a girl once, at a party. She’d travelled, spent time in Mongolia. It stuck in my mind. Once I’d decided, leaving was surprisingly easy. And when I got off the plane in Beijing, freedom crashed over me like a wave. Time was my own. I wandered the streets in a daze, intoxicated by the unfamiliar.
The train was where things started to change. I had one of four bunks in a compartment, sharing with a Chinese soldier and two Mongolian traders. There were twelve compartments to a carriage, and fourteen carriages. I know because I counted them as we rounded a bend. My life, before, the job, the home, the places I spent my time in, the people I spent it with, had been the centre of the universe. But none of it mattered, had any relevance or significance, to anybody on that train. They moved in and out of each other’s carriages, sharing food and conversation, at home in this world. I was just a minor curiosity, a foreigner, and a tall one, to be stared at and measured against. I lay on my bunk, staring out of the window. Through the Great Wall, over the border into Mongolia, across the Gobi desert, my sense of alienation growing with each of the thirty hours we travelled. Arriving in Ulan Bator brought no respite. The midday sun bore down and the wind blew sand in from the desert, sucking moisture out of my eyes and skin. Beijing had felt like a modern, dynamic city, international even. Ulan Bator was different. Smaller, more provincial. Poorer. I’d watched as we passed through the outskirts, a jumble of simple, single-storey buildings and gers, white circular tents traditional to the nomadic culture, into the centre, dominated by concrete, soviet-style buildings. Now, as I found my way from the station, it felt, and looked, like a place I didn’t belong in. Why was I here? The question overwhelmed me. I clung onto my plan, my only anchor. I needed to get into the countryside. After four disorienting days I found a jeep tour. Two weeks long, leaving the next day, four people already on it but room for one more. I didn’t need to meet them first, just said yes and paid the money.
We headed west from the city. Roads vanished, and the driver followed sets of tyre tracks over the grasslands. A land without fences, the girl at the party had said. I understood now. We stopped first in a desert area and pitched tents. The others – two couples, one French, one Italian – were okay, but I kept myself to myself. I suppose they might say that I was aloof, or arrogant, but in truth I was intimidated. I was still struggling to adjust, to find a reason for why I was here. For them it seemed clear, a break from their lives, an adventure to be recalled at parties.
On the second day we arrived at the lake. The white lake, the driver called it, though it always looked blue or grey to me. The light was vanishing, yet it had a luminescence that I can only describe as otherworldly. We’d travelled for twelve hours, slowly, excruciatingly at times, as the driver negotiated desert, hills and volcanic, lunar landscapes, and I was exhausted when we arrived. We were staying with a family. A mother, father and daughter in one ger, and one nearby for visitors, five beds spaced around the perimeter, a stove and chimney in the centre. A way of making extra money in the tourist season. In one direction hills and a tiny wooden toilet, in the other the lake. Several horses tethered to a stake, one or two other gers dotted around, and other than that, just grass, water, and in the distance, an extinct volcano.
The girl must have been around ten. I first noticed her when I saw her fishing. She looked so calm, focussed, throwing her line out, pulling it in, throwing it out, pulling it in, hour after hour, like there was nothing more important in the world. I watched her for a couple of days, from a distance, so she wouldn’t notice, and something drew me to her. Looking back, perhaps it was that she seemed at one with her routine, unquestioning. Or perhaps that she, like me, was alone so often, and it made me realise how lonely I was. I went to her, eventually, and she taught me how to fish. That feeling, when I caught my first fish, I don’t know if I can describe. A few hours with her, at the lake, and I had a greater sense of satisfaction, of purpose, than I could remember. I’d done a job and the result was in a bucket, later on my plate, and later still, on the plates of other people too.
We fished together every day after that, and that’s when I decided to stay. I told the others, and they disguised their relief well. After they left, I gave the girl a solar-powered calculator and maths textbook. I’d bought them in Ulan Bator, a last-minute trip to the department store after I’d remembered what the girl at the party had said, about leaving gifts. I don’t know what schooling she’d had, but she lapped up the maths problems, and later others too, geography, history and English, when I was able to buy more books. I loved to see the recognition in her face, her eyes lighting up as she realised she’d solved something. We developed a daily routine, the two of us, studying, working and fishing. I felt, in a way, like some sort of older brother. There was a meaning to my days. It was as if, for the first time, I knew why I was there.
And then more visitors arrived, joining me in the ger. One of them, in a coincidence I cursed, came from my home town. The people and places we had in common delighted him. Suddenly I was back there, enveloped by the past. I needed to escape again, and it drove me to ask if I could stay with the family in their ger. I knew it sometimes happened, and I was happy to pay them a little extra per night, but I also knew it would be a big deal, so I approached it softly, with trepidation. After some moments of quiet, and a conversation between themselves, the mother and father agreed. But I was most concerned about the girl, and when I took the spare bed, it suddenly didn’t seem so spare, like I was encroaching in some way, and from the girl’s face I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake, but she came to me, her shy smile back, and it felt, strangely, like home.
From then on I set about shedding my old skin, layer by layer, and losing myself in my new life. I let my hair grow, and my beard, and threw myself into the duties of a Mongolian nomad. I was the girl’s teacher, and she was mine. I learned some words and phrases of Mongolian, and with the English I taught her, we could now communicate in a basic way. I learned to milk the mares, and to ferment it into airag, a pungent drink I acquired an unlikely taste for. I learned to milk the cows too, and to make yoghurt and cheese. I sheared the sheep and I rode the horses. And when one of them died, I cried not just for the horse, but in joy at the fact that I cared so much.
As summer began to fade, the family talked about moving on, finding fresh, lower ground for winter. I said nothing. When the father took me to the town to buy a winter coat, I realised I would be staying with them.
Then things began to change. The doubts were small enough to ignore, at first, to push to the back of my mind, but from there they grew, turned into questions. Was I really going to stay for the winter? Was this my home now? Forever? It was as if a spell was wearing off. The blanket I had placed over me, that I had taken refuge in, was starting to suffocate. I didn’t have to stay, I realised. I’d found a different way of being. I’d discovered what mattered to me. I could leave and take that with me. I could return to my old life and make it new. I could become a teacher, help others like I’d helped the girl. I could embrace nature, live a more wholesome life. Or I could write about my experiences, share it with others.
At the same time as these doubts and questions swirled around my head, I was helping the family get ready to move. As their – our – preparations gathered pace and momentum, hardened into reality, so too did my own, private, plans, plans that didn’t involve them. The conflict ate away at me. I became withdrawn, even moody. But it was only on that last evening that I finally faced up to it. The animals had been rounded up, the visitor’s ger dismantled, the horses prepared. I waited until the girl had gone to bed then outside, by the fire, I told her mother and father. I would travel with them to the town where they would stock up on provisions, I told them, and then I would leave. I was going home, I said, and only then did the meaning of those words truly hit me.
I knew I should have told the girl myself. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, to see her face. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t want to be swayed from my decision. I agreed it with her mother and father. The next day, when we reached the town, we dismounted, tethered the horses, and I said I had a letter to post. Being with the girl as we travelled that morning, with her unknowing, so excited about the move, was so painful that I hardened myself against emotion. But the image that I have in my mind, as I watched the girl for the last time, saw her disappear into the market, will stay with me forever. Then I grabbed my bag, and I left.
We begin to prepare for the move. He helps us, as normal. Then something starts to change. I feel him pulling away from me. Like he is here, but not here. I have that feeling in my stomach, but I try to stay calm. I try extra hard at the books. I show him a different fishing spot. Still he is distant. I tell myself that it’s nothing, that I am imagining it.
Moving to winter ground is hard. Usually I feel sad, leaving summer behind. But this time is different. This time he is with us. We ride away together, like a family, and I am happy. We go into the market. Mother and father are quiet, but I don’t really notice. He is outside, waiting for us. But when we return, he is not there. Straight away I look for his big bag. I can’t see it. I feel panic rising up. I turn to mother and father. They look at me, and their eyes tell me. He is gone.
Jack Fisher lives in Manchester with his partner and a cat named Lester. He (Jack, not the cat) writes short stories, and is currently hacking his way through the undergrowth of a half-completed novel. He is a chemical engineer by training but, you know, facts and numbers will only get you so far. You can find more about him at jackfisher.org.uk